Category: Artists and the Iraq war

War & Empire Opening in San Francisco

The Meridian Gallery

[ The Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, California. Photo by Mark Vallen. ]

All three floors of the beautiful turn-of-the-century Beaux-Arts building that houses the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, California, were packed full of people during the September 4th, 2008, opening reception of the Meridian’s War & Empire exhibition. As the show runs until election night on November 4th, consider this pithy article to be merely the briefest of updates on what has truly turned out to be a landmark show.

War & Empire poster

[ War & Empire - Official poster for the Meridian exhibit. Designed by artist Juan Fuentes and based upon his original linoleum cut. ]

I drove up to the San Francisco Bay area from Los Angeles to attend the exhibit as a participating artist and also to assist the gallery in producing a short video documentary on the show - which should be available on my web log sometime by mid-October. As part of the video project I talked to a number of the exhibit’s other participating artists, including the co-curators of the show, Anne Trueblood Brodzky, Art Hazelwood and DeWitt Cheng, who eloquently spoke of the exhibit’s history and purpose.

Paintings by Fernando Botero

[ Abu Ghraib # 54 - Fernando Botero, 2005. Oil on canvas. 12" x 14". Collection of American University Museum, Washington, DC. "A refined painterly quality reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix." Photo by Mark Vallen. ]

I also conducted interviews with the Director and Curator of the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., Jack Rasmussen - as well as with the respected art historian, author, and former curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Peter Selz. Both of these gentlemen offered tremendous insights on the subject of contemporary political art. In the weeks to come I will also be writing a review of the War & Empire exhibit to be published on the Foreign Policy In Focus website. That illustrated article will present an overview of the Meridian’s exhibit, as well as interviews with participating artists Sandow Birk, Guy Colwell, Art Hazelwood, and Juan Fuentes.

Painting by Guy Colwell

[ Abuse - Guy Colwell. Acrylic on canvas. 2004. Colwell’s controversial painting depicting the torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. jailers while held in Abu Ghraib prison. Photo by Ken Duffy. View Duffy’s photos of the Meridian opening on Flickr. ]

For those who thirst for press reviews of the exhibition, here is a short blurb from, a website that covers exhibit openings in the San Francisco Bay area of California. Reviewer Alan Bamberger wrote that the War & Empire show: “(…) cries out in opposition to the catastrophic domestic disasters of recent years including war, reduced personal freedoms, the concentration of wealth among the few at the expense of the many, environmental degradation, and more. Three floors of overwhelmingly well-placed outrage exemplify freedom of speech at its finest - take advantage of it while we still have it.” Of course Bamberger is correct, but even his exclamatory remarks fail to convey the depth and breadth of this extraordinary exhibition.

Artwork by Rigo

[ Helicopter - RIGO. 2002. Push pins on wood. 45" x 45" Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim. The portrait depicts Geronimo (Goyathlay - or "one who yawns"), the famed Chiricahua Apache leader who led his people in fierce armed resistance against white settlement of Apache land in Arizona and New Mexico. Photo by Mark Vallen. ]

In War & Empire, one is treated to the humorous and Zen-like figurative minimalism of maverick William T. Wiley, the ominous metal and glass sculptures of Bella Feldman; which seem like the malevolent war toys of children from some militaristic alien race, and the raw and inflamed Abu Ghraib canvases of Fernando Botero; which up close possess a refined painterly quality reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix. There are many handmade prints in the show, running the gambit from Fernando Marti’s marvelous color etching, Poppies; a meditation on the linkage between the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan on the proliferation of heroin-producing poppy fields in that country - to Art Hazelwood’s devastating Fallujah, an expressionist-like woodcut that depicts massacred civilians beneath the rubble of that unfortunate war-ruined city in Iraq’s Al Anbar province.

Sculpture by Bella Feldman

[ War Toys - Bella Feldman. 2003 - Present. Installation with metal and glass sculptures. "Like the malevolent war toys of children from some militaristic alien race." Repeated text is incorporated into the installation, reading; "Weapons of Mass Destruction, Daisy Cutter, Water Boarding, Embedded, Neutralize, Enduring Freedom, Surgical Strike, Carpet Bombing." Photo by Mark Vallen. ]

What makes the War & Empire exhibit singularly astonishing is that it so easily encompasses a diversity of aesthetic styles from artists who would ordinarily not be exhibiting together; from those whose works embody the rarified high concepts of the “fine art” world, to those “street artists” and illustrators whose works are primarily aimed at a mass audience. The exhibition unflinchingly incorporates installation, sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography to great effect, with the entire endeavor being of the highest quality and held together by a grand thematic vision - the yearning for a better world and revulsion for the way that things are. That dissimilar artists of all ages who have disparate cultural and ethnic backgrounds, working in a multiplicity of techniques and approaches, can so successfully make a collective statement regarding current political realities, indicates a new and vibrant social engagement in American art.

War & Empire opened on September 4, 2008, and runs until the evening of the U.S. presidential election - November 4, 2008.

Print by Eric Drooker

[ Slingshot vs. Tank - Eric Drooker. Undated digital print. Photo by Ken Duffy. View Duffy’s photos of the Meridian opening on Flickr. ]

War & Empire at the Meridian Gallery

Coming this September, 2008, San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery will present War and Empire, a group exhibition that has as its theme the state of democracy in the U.S. - as well as the continuing military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. I am delighted that my own art has been included in the exhibit, since being able to show with a notable collection of artists that I fervently admire is no small thing. For the next few weeks I will abstain from posting to this web log, giving me the time to write an article on the War & Empire show for Foreign Policy in Focus.

Drawing by Mark Vallen

[ Not Our Children, Not Their Children - Mark Vallen. Pencil on paper. 2003. To be displayed at the upcoming War & Empire exhibit at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery. ]

Famed Columbian artist Fernando Botero will have two paintings from his powerful Abu Ghraib series included in the War & Empire exhibit. On loan from the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., the paintings will most assuredly be a focal point of the exhibit; but I am equally excited over a number of the other artists included in the show - Gee Vaucher, Sandow Birk, and Patrick Oliphant to name but a few.

Painting by Fernando Botero

[ Abu Ghraib #72 - Fernando Botero. Oil on canvas. 2007. To be displayed at the upcoming War & Empire exhibit at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery. ]

Painter Guy Colwell will also be a participating artist. When Abuse, his canvas depicting the torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. jailers was displayed at San Francisco’s Capobianco Gallery in May, 2004, rightist thugs physically assaulted gallery owner Lori Haigh, and through a campaign of unrelenting threat and harassment forced her to permanently close her gallery. Colwell essentially went underground in order to avoid harm. Triumphantly, Colwell’s controversial painting will be shown at the Meridian Gallery exhibit along with This Is Not Torture, the artist’s latest drawing on the subject of waterboarding.

Drawing by Guy Colwell

[ This Is Not Torture - Guy Colwell. Pencil on paper. 2008. To be displayed at the upcoming War & Empire exhibit at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery. ]

War & Empire is part of the Art of Democracy project first conceptualized around two years ago by San Francisco printmaker and painter Art Hazelwood, and Stephen Fredericks of the National Arts Club of New York. Art of Democracy gelled into a nationwide coalition of artists and venues who will be mounting art shows across the country in the run-up period just prior to the 2008 election. The Meridian Gallery exhibit opens on September 4, 2008, and runs until the evening of the U.S. presidential election - November 4, 2008.

The full listing of the artists whose works will appear in the group exhibit are as follows: Scott Anderson, David Avery, Will Barnet, Jesus Barraza, Sandow Birk, Fernando Botero, Mark Bryan, Enrique Chagoya, SF Print Collective, Guy Colwell, Francisco Dominguez, Eric Drooker, Ala Ebtekar, Kevin Evans, Bella Feldman, Stephen Fredericks, Juan Fuentes, J. C. Garrett, Art Hazelwood, Frances Jetter, David Jones, Hung Liu, Roberta Loach, Mary V Marsh, Fernando Marti, Doug Minkler, Claude Moller, Malaquias Montoya, Patrick Oliphant, Ariel Parkinson, Francesca Pastine, Patrick Piazza, Phyllis Plattner, Gary-Paul Prince, Rigo, Favianna Rodriguez, Ben Sakoguchi, Jos Sances, Mark Vallen, Gee Vaucher, Mary Hull Webster, Howard Whitehouse, William Wiley, Bruce Yurgil.

The Orientalists: Then and Now

The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, is an important exhibition running in London at the Tate Britain from June 4th, 2008 through August 31st, 2008. The exhibit provides a somewhat critical look at Orientalism, the genre commonly associated with nineteenth-century Western artists who depicted the peoples and cultures of an imagined Near and Middle East. The Tate is displaying over 120 paintings, prints and drawings created by British artists from 1780 to 1930, and given the current occupation of Iraq - the timely exhibit inadvertently calls into question the West’s modern-day accepted wisdom regarding the Islamic world.

Painting by Henry William Pickersgill

[ James Silk Buckingham and his Wife Elizabeth in Arab Costume, Baghdad, 1825. - Henry William Pickersgill. Oil on canvas. On view at the Tate, from the collection of the Royal Geographical Society. The English born Buckingham (1786-1855) was an author and adventurer who traveled extensively in the Middle East. His lectures and travel books about the Arab world sharpened European interest in the region. ]

Until the late 1960s, Orientalist painting was purely evaluated on aesthetic terms, with little or no attention paid to the socio-political aspects of the works. Aware of the failing to take into account the legacy of colonialism, the Tate exhibit offers a reassessment of Orientalist painting. As part of that reexamination, the museum presented a June 12th symposium titled Orientalism Revisited: Art and the Politics of Representation - a day long panel discussion by distinguished professionals and intellectuals on the subject of “art, politics, and representation of the nineteenth century to today.” The entire exhibition was curated with the views of scholar and writer, Edward Said (pronounced sah-EED) in mind. In the Tate’s words:

“In the 1970s the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said published his treatise on Orientalism, initiating a global debate over Western representations of the Middle East. For many, such representations now appeared to be a sequence of fictions serving the West’s desire for superiority and control over the East. The argument for and against Said’s Orientalism has continued for thirty years. Its resonance for an exhibition such as this one, however, is as strong as ever given that, by the 1920s (the end of the period covered by the exhibition), Britain was in direct control of much of the newly-abolished Ottoman Empire, including Egypt, Palestine and Iraq. As Said’s followers argued, these images cannot be viewed in isolation from their wider political and cultural context.”

Representations of the “exotic Orient” have appeared in Western art from antiquity, but after General Napoleon Bonapart and his invading French army conquered Egypt in 1798, European penetration and colonization of the Near and Middle East began in earnest. There was a concomitant explosion of Orientalist painting that fed European flights of fancy regarding the entire region. Some Western artists actually traveled through the area, painting, sketching, and making field studies for works that would be created or finished in the studio - while many others never left their European homes, instead finding inspiration for their canvases from written accounts of life in the “Orient”. In either case, the artists approached their subjects with presumed Western superiority.

Painting by Augustus John

[ T.E. Lawrence - Augustus John. Oil on canvas 1919. Collection of the Tate Gallery. Due to his knowledge of Arab culture and language, Thomas Edward Lawrence became an intelligence officer in the British army after the outbreak of World War 1. He assisted Arab forces in waging a successful guerrilla war against the Ottoman Turkish Empire - assuring the British Empire postwar control of the Middle East. ]

A long train of events brought ever more European artists and writers into the region after the French subjugated Egypt. France took possession of Algiers in 1830, and along with Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire - fought Russia for control of the Holy Land in the Crimean War of 1854-1856. The French built and opened the Egyptian Suez Canal in 1869, increasing European incursion into the region. The Ottoman Turkish Empire was itself finally dismembered at the close of World War I, with its territories of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen becoming European possessions. While a good deal of Orientalist art is magnificent, that does not mean it should or can be disassociated from the European imperialist expansion it was a part of. As Said declared in Orientalism;

“One would find this kind of procedure less objectionable as political propaganda - which is what it is, of course - were it not accompanied by sermons on the objectivity, the fairness, the impartiality of a real historian, the implication always being that Muslims and Arabs cannot be objective but that Orientalists. . .writing about Muslims are, by definition, by training, by the mere fact of their Westernness. This is the culmination of Orientalism as a dogma that not only degrades its subject matter but also blinds its practitioners.”

While some Orientalist art depicted the Islamic world populated by a despotic and brutish race in need of being rescued by enlightened Europeans, not all of it was so odious. With a keen eye for observation, Orientalists created paintings and prints of nearly everything, from landscapes and cityscapes to portraits of the high ranking and the humble. If these works set Islamic peoples apart as exotic others, they also clearly expressed awe and wonderment over Near and Middle Eastern societies.

The French neo-classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867/pronunciation) was certainly not the only artist to misrepresent and mythologize harem life, but his Orientalist themed La Grande Odalisque (1814) and The Turkish Bath (1862) helped to permanently imprint upon the Western mind the archetypical vision of lascivious Arabs. Remarkably, Ingres never traveled to the Near or Middle East - his paintings were pure conjecture and created in his Paris studio. Moreover, since the harem was a women’s quarters whose entry was forbidden to all men, save for Eunuch guards - Western depictions of harem life were largely based on sheer fantasy, hearsay, and rumor.

Painting by Frank Dicksee

[ Leila - Frank Dicksee. Oil on canvas. 1892. On view at the Tate. The Orientalist fantasy of the hyper sexualized harem girl is a stereotype that is still with us today. ]

From his studio in Paris the French Academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) painted pictures of harem life based on sketches of buildings he made while traveling through Egypt and Turkey. Into these backdrops he painted gorgeous Parisian models who posed as harem girls. In point of fact, of all the Orientalists who painted harem scenes, only the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1853) actually managed to step inside of one.

Appointed to an official French delegation to Morocco in 1832, Delacroix made a four month trip to Morocco and the conquered nation of Algiers. He was infatuated by the Arab people, but no less inclined to have a distorted view of them than did his rival, Ingres. Delacroix wanted to visit a harem, but this proved impossible in Morocco because of stringent religious rules. Occupied Algiers however proved a different matter. A French harbor engineer “persuaded” a powerful Algerian to allow Delacroix a visit to his harem under a vow of secrecy. The artist spent hours sketching the women there, and said of them, “This is woman as I understand her, not thrown into the life of the world, but withdrawn at its heart as its most secret, delicious and moving fulfillment.”

Back home Delacroix would paint Women of Algiers in their apartment (1834) from the sketches made in Algiers. It would be a tour de force, possibly the most influential of all harem paintings. Renoir swore he could smell incense when close to the painting and Cézanne was effusive over the color of the slippers belonging to one of the odalisques, a red that “goes into one’s eyes like a glass of wine down one’s throat.”

Orientalism in art was by no means restricted to the 19th century - think of Matisse’s Odalisque in Red Trousers. Picasso ended up painting fifteen variations of Delacroix’s Women of Algiers. Orientalism in Western art, academia, and politics by no means melted away with the passage of time - it still informs our opinions and actions even today. Certainly those experts who assured us that “Liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk” were suffering from the latest virulent strain of Orientalism. As Dr. Said noted in the 2003 revised edition of Orientalism; “Without a well-organized sense that the people over there were not like ‘us’ and didn’t appreciate ‘our’ values - the very core of traditional orientalist dogma - there would have been no war.” Writing on the mess in the Middle East for The Independent from his home in Beirut, Lebanon, British reporter Robert Fisk said the following:

“I despair. The Tate has just sent me its magnificent book of orientalist paintings to coincide with its latest exhibition (The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting) and I am struck by the awesome beauty of this work. In the 19th century, our great painters wondered at the glories of the Orient. No more painters today. Instead, we send our photographers and they return with pictures of car bombs and body parts and blood and destroyed homes and Palestinians pleading for food and fuel and hooded gunmen on the streets of Beirut, yes, and dead Israelis too. The orientalists looked at the majesty of this place and today we look at the wasteland which we have helped to create.”

Fisk’s assessment is unquestionably a bleak one, but I find it difficult to disagree with. Putting aside all criticisms of Orientalist art, the fact that the West once found inspiration and bedazzling beauty in the Near and Middle East should jar our collective memory. If Western perceptions of “the Orient” focused on the mysterious, exotic, and sensual, there was always a subtext of evil, cruelty, and depravity. However, today we are being shown only the latter, and we have largely accepted this worldview. How we arrived at this historic juncture is not hard to determine, but a thorough reading of history regarding empire and imperialist depredations in the region is required for a full understanding of present circumstances. The Tate’s exhibition can be seen as one small step in acquiring such knowledge, especially now that the United Kingdom once again militarily occupies Iraq and Afghanistan, albeit as a junior partner in U.S. plans for the region.

I am left to wonder, not about the enormous influence Orientalist art had in times past, but how contemporary artists will act in response to the crisis in the Near and Middle East. Although a small layer of artists have dealt with the ongoing catastrophe, indifference or resignation still seems to be the art world’s general attitude. Artists can not permit impassiveness and lack of concern for the incalculable misery being experienced by humanity in the Near and Middle East to become the hallmarks of 21st art. The artistic community must refute the barbarity seen all around us - without prejudice, false hopes, or creating new strains of Orientalism.

ARTISTS CALL: Left, Right and Center

Thematically centered around the state of the American political scene, The Art of Democracy is a national coalition of art exhibitions scheduled for the Fall of 2008. Twenty-eight galleries from San Francisco to New York are participating in the project, which leads up to the November 2008 national elections. Other galleries, arts organizations, and artists are encouraged to organize their own events under the umbrella of the Art of Democracy coalition; which is currently circulating eleven different Open Calls for Exhibitions where artists may submit artworks.

Screenprint by Ian Pulia

[ The Art of Democracy - Ian Pulia. Screenprint. 2008. One of a number of prints designed by students of Michael Goro at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, Illinois. Pulia's silkscreen brilliantly depicts the costs of apathy when it comes to global warming. ]

One such Artists Call comes from my associate Patrick Merrill, who is organizing Left, Right and Center, an exhibition of political prints to be displayed at the Tustin Old Town Gallery in Tustin, California. In the past I had the great pleasure of exhibiting with Merrill, a talented Master Printer and the Director of Kellogg University Art Gallery at Cal Poly Pomona, so I would like to draw special attention to his efforts by publishing a few details from his open call for prints:

Left, Right and Center will be an exhibition of prints from the So Cal arts community. From our standpoint what constitutes a print is still (and hopefully always will be) open to interpretation. Prints may be traditional in execution and innovative in presentation; for the wall or the floor or ceiling; sculptural or as books. We are looking for diverse voices not just the ‘left’ speaking to the choir. Democracy is about dialogue. Even if the current scene seems to be one set of serial monologues haranguing the other, democracy is our goal. Let’s put the pundits and talking heads aside. Let us hear from our artists. This is not a competition in the standard sense, but a means to present a collective visual voice from the Southern California region. The intention is to curate an exhibition, not jury one.

As an additional incentive we can offer you the possibility of having your work accepted into the most important political graphics collection in the nation. Carol Wells, Director of the Center for Political Graphics here in Los Angeles has agreed to come to the exhibit and select work for permanent inclusion in the Center’s collection. There are two mandatory conditions: the work must be a multiple and it must be overtly political. There is no entry fee for Left, Right and Center. Entry due date by August 15, 2008.”

The Art of Democracy national coalition continues to expand, offering all types of artists the opportunity to create and exhibit works of art that speak of the current world crisis. Undoubtedly I will be writing about the coalition’s efforts in the near future, but at present I wish to urge artists across the United States to become active participants in this most exciting project.

Modern Painters: Art & War

The April 2008 edition of Modern Painters: The International Contemporary Art Magazine, is devoted to “the politically driven art made in response to war and its critical reception.” An introductory statement from the magazine’s Assistant Editor, Quinn Latimer, sums up the profusely illustrated April edition thusly: “Each month, with some discomfiture, we publish art criticism that rarely touches on the Iraq war. But the fifth anniversary of the American invasion compelled us to unambiguously address the conflict. For while there has been no shortage of artistic responses, their critical reception has been scant. Modern Painters is devoting this issue to speaking to that void - and to filling any implied silences by putting words and images in their stead.”

Cover of Modern Painters April 2008 edition

[ Modern Painters - Photomontage cover by Martha Rosler. ]

Ordinarily given to commentary and analysis of contemporary art, from painting to photography, film, architecture, design and more, the Modern Painters’ Art & War edition is indicative of what bubbles just beneath the surface of the art world. Editor Susan Morris struck what for me seemed a positive note, when she wrote in her editorial statement that the magazine’s staff; “began to wonder about art and activism, art in the age of terrorism, the nature of propaganda, and the role of art in wartime. The stories in this issue are, we hope, the start of what will be a continuing conversation.” A single issue of a magazine is of course not enough, but it is a step in the right direction towards developing a questioning and contentious aesthetic. Morris’ words are pleasing to my disposition, since what she describes is in actuality the general direction this web log has taken since its inception.

Modern Painters’ Art & War edition offers its readership insightful articles coupled with multiple examples of artworks created by a wide array of professional contemporary artists. Ara H. Merjian is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer at Stanford University, where he teaches modern art. His article, Diminishing Returns: Wartime Art Practices, uses the American war in Vietnam as a starting point for his critique, writing; “During the Vietnam War, artists stopped making work as a form of protest against its atrocities. Why is a similar response to Iraq unthinkable, and what is the artistic community doing instead.” Merjian answers his own rhetorical question by presenting an overview of current antiwar artworks and projects - but he also gives us a conundrum to brood over when he writes;

“(….) these commendable efforts have not led to an antiwar movement in a consistent - and consistently obstreperous - sense. Even sustained examples in various mediums - Fernando Botero’s paintings addressing human-rights abuses at Abu Ghraib; Martha Rosler’s photomontages; Paul Chan’s series of videos from Afghanistan and Baghdad; Mark Wallinger’s painstaking installation re-creating censored British activist Brian Haw’s protest placards - constitute relatively isolated cases, somehow stripped of a mass and momentum that might have stemmed the war’s relentless swell.”

It’s not often that my name is mentioned in the same breath as that of Karl Rove, so you will excuse my wanting to share the following with you, but it’s one of the finer points made in Merjian’s article that has to do with the complexities of language, visuals, and of articulating views outside of acceptable mainstream parameters.

“Just as there is no geographic center to the global war on terror, there is no ‘center’ to its language. Terms ranging from peacekeeping to Patriot Act open onto consequences far less transparent than their monikers would suggest, evincing what artist and activist Mark Vallen has called, with his tongue only partially in cheek, ‘totalitarian postmodern.’ Karl Rove and company’s brilliant expropriation - conscious or not - of poststructuralist figures of speech to insidious ends has, in many instances, run circles around leftist efforts at subversion.”

The April edition of Modern Painters also carries several other commentaries, columns, and reviews of note. In the article Display Tactics: Political Curating, freelance curator and critic, Tirdad Zolghadr, challenges the effectiveness of recent exhibits that have addressed the Iraq war. Five Years and Counting is a portfolio of images from over a dozen of today’s artists who have created works in opposition to the Iraq war. Home Delivery: Martha Rosler’s Photomontages, is Richard Meyer’s essay on the fierce cut and paste montage work of Rosler, who has four stunning works in the magazine’s pages, plus - she created the powerful cover art for the magazine. No doubt of interest to artists, activists, and academics, Modern Painters’ Art & War edition is available on newsstands most everywhere.

Bearing Witness: Photos of the Iraq War

On April 7, 2003, Reuters photographer Faleh Kheiber took a photo that will forever speak of the cruelty of war. Kheiber’s photo, and dozens of others taken by fellow Reuters photojournalists working in Iraq, comprise an exhibition of war photography marking the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Bearing Witness: Five Years of the Iraq War, is the inaugural exhibition for the Idea Generation Gallery in London, a timely show that is actually a collaboration between the gallery and the Reuters news agency. The Head of Visual Projects at Reuters, Jassim Ahmad, said of the gallery exhibit: “This is a tribute to 125 journalists who have died in the conflict, including seven colleagues, and testament to the bravery and tenacity of those who have born witness through half a decade of conflict.” Readers should be reminded that press safety advocates like the International Press Institute have designated Iraq as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.

Reuters photo

[ Iraqi guerillas - Photo by Reuters news agency, from the Bearing Witness exhibit. ]

The exhibit stretches throughout two floors of the Idea Generation Gallery, bringing together war photography, video, and information graphics so as to form a narrative concerning the harrowing nature of frontline war journalism. Americans may be familiar with a number of indelible images in the exhibit, but there are other photos included in the show that will be less familiar to an audience habituated to the sanitized version of the Iraq war as presented by mainstream media outlets. Faleh Kheiber’s photo comes to mind.

Faleh Kheiber visited Baghdad’s Kindi hospital on April 7, 2003, along with the Gulf Bureau Chief for Reuters, Samia Nakhoul - just as U.S. troops began capturing parts of the Iraqi capital. The two interviewed and photographed 12 year old Ali Ismail Abbas, whose family home had been hit by U.S. missiles; Ali’s father, pregnant mother, brother, aunt, three cousins and three other relatives all perished in the explosion. Ali suffered third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body - and the deadly blast had blown off both of his arms. The two Reuters journalists filed their story on the unfortunate Ali, and their report was picked up and published worldwide - with Kheiber’s tear-jerking photograph breaking hearts around the world. But that would not be the end of the tale.

The day after Faleh Kheiber and Samia Nakhoul filed their story, the two were in Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, where the Reuter’s Baghdad bureau had located its office in a converted upper floor suite. Some 200 international journalists from various news agencies were based at the hotel, covering the war from the Palestine’s balconies as the capital burned. The U.S. military was informed of the hotel’s role as a headquarters for journalists. As fighting raged near the Palestine, a U.S. tank fired a shell at the hotel’s 15th floor, killing two reporters and severely wounding three others - two of which were Samia Nakhoul and Faleh Kheiber. Ms. Nakhoul required emergency brain surgery in order to survive.

Bearing Witness, runs from April 9, 2008 to May 4, 2008, at the Idea Generation Gallery. 11 Chance Street, London E2 7JB. Reuters’ has also launched an excellent multimedia website in conjunction with the gallery exhibit.

LA vs. War

LA vs. War promises to be one of the largest antiwar cultural happenings in the recent history of Los Angeles. Organized by the activist artists of Yo!, the same people who put together the Yo! What Happened to Peace? international touring peace poster exhibit, the LA vs. War extravaganza is scheduled to run April 10 - 13, 2008, at The Firehouse art space in downtown Los Angeles. In the words of the organizers, the show will be “an unprecedented gathering of artists united to deliver a message of peace, and offering resistance and opposition to war and violence.”

LA vs. War street poster

[ LA vs. War - Anonymous street poster. A number of colorful handmade posters promoting the LA vs. War exhibit have been appearing on walls all across Los Angeles. This particular example makes use of a huge Xerox-like, black and white print-out, which has been hand-colored with brushes and spray paint. ]

Over the course of the event’s four day run, LA vs. War will showcase original artworks, present collections of current and vintage antiwar posters, conduct live workshops in poster and t-shirt screen-printing, display films, light installations and projections, offer music selections from antiwar DJs, and much more.

A core element of the exhibit will be the display of original drawings, paintings, and other unique artworks from the likes of Peter Kennard, Gee Vaucher, Poli Marichal, and other talented artists too numerous to mention. I’m pleased to have two drawings in this section of the show, I Am Not The Enemy, and Not Our Children - Not Their Children. Most of the one of a kind artworks in the show will be available for purchase, with a percentage of sales going towards furthering the overall project. Plans are already underway for San Diego vs. War and New York vs. War.

Also of interest will be the presentations of antiwar poster art both current and historic. LA vs. War will have on view dozens of recent posters from the Yo! What Happened to Peace? collection - and many of the vibrant prints will be available for purchase. In addition, a selection of historic antiwar posters from the archives of L.A.’s Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG), will be on display. CSPG is a vital resource for artists, activists, researchers, and academics; and with its holding of some 50,000 works it has become one of the country’s largest archives of political poster art.

Print by Winston Smith

[ The Spoils of War - Winston Smith. Five color silkscreen print. On display at LA vs. War. ]
LA vs. War takes place April 10th to April 13th, 2008, in downtown Los Angeles at The Firehouse, 710 S. Santa Fe Avenue, Los Angeles CA. 90021. For a full listing of participating artists and scheduled events, visit the LA vs. War website at An Artists’ Reception takes place on Thursday, April 10, 2008. 7 p.m. - 9 p.m. Regular exhibition hours - Thursday through Sunday, Noon - 11 p.m. All ages are welcome and admission is free.

[ UPDATE - Organizers of the exhibit tell me that around 5,000 people took in the LA vs. War show during its four day run. The following photos are from the exhibit’s opening night party. ]

Opening night at LA vs. War exhibit

Artist’s Reception at LA vs. War exhibit, Thursday, April 13, 2008.

Opening night at LA vs. War exhibit

Kurt Brian Webb & the Dance of Death

War: Dance of Death in Black, White, and Blood Red All Over, is the name of a timely exhibition of woodcuts now on view at Los Angeles’ A Shenere Velt Gallery. Printmaker Kurt Brian Webb’s blunt, no-nonsense graphic style makes clear an unequivocal opposition to the forces of war and militarism through prints that are at once honest, sardonic, and mordantly funny. The pale rider of course stalks every one of us, but Webb chooses to focus on the military figures who have danced with Mr. D., and in so doing the artist reveals the human condition.

All of the prints in Webb’s exhibit are hand-carved from blocks of wood and printed in two colors on Japanese rice paper. Webb updated this venerable technique by printing his designs on faded images of corporate newspaper stories pertaining to the conflagration in Iraq - and the blending of traditional techniques, jarring imagery, and mass media detritus makes for some searing antiwar artworks.

Woodcut print by Kurt Brian Webb
[ Marching Infantry Corporal: Death toll in Iraq war reaches grim milestone - Kurt Brian Webb. Two-color woodblock print. 10” x 8”. 2006. ]

Marching Infantry Corporal: Death toll in Iraq war reaches grim milestone, depicts a doomed infantryman as he trudges along, burdened by heavy combat gear and a skeleton that rides him like a pack mule. The print was created in 2006 when U.S. military fatalities in Iraq had reached 822. That the toll has reached 4013 as of this writing only makes Webb’s print that much more foreboding.

There is a timeless quality to Webb’s prints, which not only attests to the artist’s considerable skill but also to his having tapped into a well established tradition in print making that makes use of death imagery for purposes of social commentary - José Guadalupe Posada comes to mind. At the turn of the 20th century the famous Mexican printmaker created over 1,600 satirical prints that featured calaveras (skeletons) deriding the pillars of society as well as the landless peasantry. But Kurt Brian Webb found his inspiration in the medieval prints of Europe.

Woodcut print by Kurt Brian Webb

[ Staff Sergeant Depending on Prosthetic Limb: Amputation rate for U.S. troops twice that of past wars - Kurt Brian Webb. Two-color woodblock print. 10” x 8”. 2006. ]

While traveling in Germany years ago I purchased a book titled, Der Tanzende Tod (Dancing Death), a compilation of woodcut prints by various German artists from the medieval period illustrating their views of death. The glumly humorous prints depicted skeletal figures and decaying cadavers mocking everyone from Cardinals and Kings to Knights and commoners. Such prints were widespread throughout Europe in the middle ages - an epoch of brutal feudalism, peasant revolts, religious wars, and of course the Bubonic Plague. Kurt Brian Webb has updated the medieval view of quietus and the Angel of Death, to frame imperialist war as our epoch’s plague.

Medieval German Woodcut

[ Tod und der Kaiser/Death and the Emperor - German woodblock print from the 1480s. From the book Der Tanzende Tod. ]

War: Dance of Death runs at the A Shenere Velt Gallery until Sunday, May 4, 2008. The gallery is located at the Workman’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles 90035 (Click here for a map to the gallery).

Artists Against The War - A Review

To mark the 5th anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, Foreign Policy in Focus magazine asked me to write a review of Artists Against The War, an exhibition of antiwar art organized and presented by the New York-based Society of Illustrators. The following article was originally published in FPIF, March 18, 2008.

On May 1, 2003, George W. Bush held an Iraq War victory celebration aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Lincoln, a moment of triumph that has since metamorphosed into the very embodiment of folly as the bloody war continues to grind on. On that faraway date Bush stood beneath a mammoth banner that read, “Mission Accomplished.” Ed Koren has memorialized the event very differently from what the president intended.

The artist has created a sketch titled after that embarrassing banner, but thematically it presents another view of military madness. Drawn in Koren’s characteristically jangly and nervous style, the picture of shell-shocked soldiers on a muddy battlefield strewn with the carnage and ruin of war recalls images from the trenches of World War I. Koren’s nightmarish sketch offers no rationale for the conflict. This inability to grasp the reasons behind the hostilities links the artwork to the incomprehensible brutalities of wars past and present.

Koren’s work is part of an important exhibition put on in January 2008 by the New York-based Society of Illustrators. Titled Artists Against The War, the exhibit took place in the lead-up to the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. It draws from the history of graphic protest and demonstrates the many ways that illustrators—in comics, editorial cartoons, illustrations for magazine articles, and so on—have reflected on the representations and misrepresentations of war.

The history of commercial illustration in the United States encompasses the images of artists like Charles Dana Gibson, Maxfield Parish, N.C. Wyeth, James Montgomery Flagg, Frederic Remington, and Norman Rockwell. These and many other artists helped to shape and define the American experience. After the Second World War, a divide grew between the worlds of illustration and fine art. Commercial publishers bankrolled illustrators to produce images on demand that were essential to marketing. Fine artists, meanwhile, generally struggled on their own to create unique and contemplative works of a decidedly non-mercantile nature.

Early on, some editorial illustrators, while still on paid assignments sponsored by commercial interests, nevertheless managed to bridge this gap between illustration and high art—creating evocative works that told of real world events. For example, the magazine Harper’s Weekly employed Winslow Homer as a war correspondent, sending him to the front lines of the American Civil War to sketch soldiers on the battlefield. Afterwards Homer evolved into one of America’s finest 19th-century painters. Its business-related foundations aside, illustration commonly shared with fine art—at least up until the post WWII era—an exploration of the world through the traditions of objective realism. However, the postwar period saw that relationship smashed to smithereens with the ascendancy of abstract art.

The high art world is now in paralysis over its inability to provide thoughtful examinations that connect with broad numbers of people. Surprisingly enough, it might be the world of commercial illustration that offers a model for the advancement of contemporary fine art. Endeavoring to communicate clearly with as wide an audience as possible, illustrators never abandoned realist aesthetics, which are unmistakably the most direct way of delivering a thought or concept to a large audience. Perhaps more importantly, illustration art does not wallow in the cynical disengagement and alienation that is so fashionable in today’s high art—and therein lies the importance of the Society of Illustrators Artists Against The War exhibit.

"The first Casualty of War is Truth" - Istvan Banyai. 2004. Pencil line and digital color. © 2008 - all rights reserved.

"The first Casualty of War is Truth" - Istvan Banyai. 2004. Pencil line and digital color. © all rights reserved.

Istvan Banyai’s The first Casualty of War is Truth is reminiscent of a certain illustration style of the late 1950s and early 1960s: a crisp, detailed draftsmanship and a monochromatic color scheme that focuses on the au courant lifestyles of the privileged. In pencil and digital media, Banyai drew a portrait of one such social butterfly, a fashionable young woman in her ritzy big city apartment.

The linear perspective of the artwork shows us a woman standing on the balcony of her abode, the sunlight that spills into her residence reveals the wake of a recent shopping spree.

The living space is littered with bags and merchandise from big-name posh boutiques. However, social reality is inescapable, and the bourgeois interior is unsettled by the presence of the ubiquitous household television. It broadcasts the image of an Arab guerilla fighter carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.

"Support Our Troops" - R.O. Blechman. 2007. Pen and ink, watercolor, pencil. © 2008 - all rights reserved.

"Support Our Troops" - R.O. Blechman. 2007. Pen and ink, watercolor, pencil. © all rights reserved.

The design of R.O. Blechman’s Support Our Troops appears to be simple, but its political complexity is undeniable. The artist’s uncomplicated and brilliantly drawn line alludes to the 1st-century Hellenistic Greek statue, Laocoon, now located in the Vatican Museums of Rome. Greek mythology mentions Laocoon as the priest who warned the people of Troy—then under siege by the Greeks—not to bring into their city the gigantic wooden horse found outside the city’s gates.

Laocoon’s cautionary oratory to his people has been passed down to us in the bastardized phrase, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” At the end of his impassioned speech in opposition to dragging the enormous horse into Troy, Laocoon threw his spear at the horse—thus angering the goddess Minerva, who sent two monstrous sea serpents to slay Laocoon and his two sons.

In his artwork Blechman replaces Laocoon and his doomed offspring with contemporary characters who are punished by the Gods of preemptive war for having refused the “WMD” Trojan horse. Instead of being tormented by snakes, the tragic figures are strangled by red, white, and blue ribbons bearing the words “Support our Troops”.

"Ghosts" - Brian Cronin. 2006. Acrylic and graphite on panel. © 2008 - all rights reserved.

"Ghosts" - Brian Cronin. 2006. Acrylic and graphite on panel. © all rights reserved.

With its flat minimalism, Brian Cronin’s Ghosts harkens back to 1960s Pop Art. But unlike that movement’s impassive and deadpan aesthetics, Cronin’s neo-Pop approach is rich in symbolic meaning and emotional impact.

He presents a nondescript room forlornly decorated with a serviceable but unfilled bookcase, a functional but quite bare table, and an empty frame hanging on the wall. The only suggestion that people once occupied the room is afforded by the radiant chandelier suspended from the ceiling.

But there’s something menacing about that light fixture. Close inspection reveals its luminescent bulbs are in fact the phantasmagorical silhouettes of diminutive jet bombers. Like an ethereal nest of vampires they have sucked the life out of the room. Cronin proffers the conclusion that the absence of books, art, and other vestiges of civilization—as in the real world—can be directly attributed to the unquenchable hunger of the wraithlike war machines. They are the ghosts that have robbed us of our humanity.

Peter Kuper’s 2004 This is Not a Comic (Silkscreen, not pictured), is a hilarious send-up of Ceci n’est pas une pipe (”This is not a pipe”), the famous painting by Belgian Surrealist René Magritte. Kuper constructed a series of comic panels, with the first being Magritte’s pipe and the words, “This is not a pipe.” Subsequent panels present images of war and disaster coupled with words of denial. Jet bombers obliterating human targets combined with the words, “This is not an invasion.” A homeless vet living on the street and begging for food, captioned with the words, “This is not unemployment.” A close-up view of a surveillance camera scanning the public, along with the words, “This is not your concern.”

"Tasting Victory" - Koren Shadmi. 2007. Watercolor, ink and digital. © 2008 - all rights reserved.

"Tasting Victory" - Koren Shadmi. 2007. Watercolor, ink and digital. © all rights reserved.

Koren Shadmi’s Tasting Victory alludes to the famous photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt on August 15th, 1945, in New York City.

Eisenstaedt shot his legendary photo of a U.S. sailor grabbing the nearest girl for a kiss, as throngs of jubilant Americans filled Times Square to celebrate Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day), just after the United States dropped the atomic bombs that forced the surrender of Japan.

If Shadmi’s artwork refers to Eisenstaedt’s photo, and by extension the defeat of the Japanese empire—all similarities end there. The illustration catapults the viewer into a world where the doctrine of preemptive war has become the order of the day, and no one is celebrating.

For a number of reasons Burt Silverman’s 1969 lithograph, Eternal Protesters, is reminiscent of the graphic works created by the great German printmaker Käthe Kollwitz. To begin with, Silverman is well versed in the craft of traditional lithography, which his superlative handling of the unforgiving technique clearly shows. But beyond that he has coupled an adroitness at realistic drawing with a keen eye for social observation, which gives the characters in his artwork a timeless visage.

 "Eternal Protesters" - Burt Silverman. 1969. Lithograph. © 2008 - all rights reserved.

"Eternal Protesters" - Burt Silverman. 1969. Lithograph. © all rights reserved.

It is just as likely that the young dissenters pictured in the print could have been protesters on the streets of Berlin during the Weimar Republic of Kollwitz’s day, as they might have been demonstrators in some American city during the tumultuous late 1960s.

If it were not for the date of the print’s creation, the activists portrayed could just as well be railing against the current occupation of Iraq.

Ellen Weinstein’s 2007 Camouflage is a close-up portrait of an American soldier, the type of likeness one usually sees on television news broadcasts reporting on U.S. soldiers slain in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Such images are always tragically the same, a gallant warrior in uniform imbued with the virtues of service and self-sacrifice, whose fresh face is unetched by life’s hard lessons—the physiognomy of a soul whose life came to an untimely end.

But Weinstein’s artwork looks beyond facile patriotism to expose an unsettling reality. The soldier’s portrait, including his uniform and the American flag back-drop, are entirely composed of snippets of tabloid press reports trumpeting Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and other inconsequential celebrities. The collage presents the viewer with a conundrum. Does the camouflage hide a thoroughly narcissistic and debauched society—or does a manufactured culture of distraction mask a deep-rooted militarism?

"Camouflage" - Ellen Weinstein. 2007. Collage. © all rights reserved.

"Camouflage" - Ellen Weinstein. 2007. Collage. © all rights reserved.

Yes, we “support our troops”, but we care for our entertainment and pop stars even more. What blinds us to this psychotic behavior is the real camouflage suggested by the collage.

The Artists Against The War exhibition is certainly not without its weaknesses. A few submissions display limitations when it comes to technical ability, clarity, or political imagination. Some works simply attribute the world’s ills to bad leadership (President Bush being a favorite target) rather than offering a critique that questions systemic cause and effect.

But taken as a whole the exhibit is a remarkable display of artists grappling with complex political issues in straightforward and thought-provoking ways that can be understood by all. Art should interact with society. It should prod, stimulate, influence, and ultimately effect transformation, which to a great degree is precisely what the Artists Against The War exhibit has accomplished. Now it’s time for the elite art world to follow suit.